By Jeremy Balan
California Chrome stepped on the track at Los Alamitos Race Course for the last time Jan. 4.
You wouldn’t know it from the way he behaved, because the 6-year-old chestnut went through the motions like he has so many mornings before.
Under regular exercise rider Dihigi Gladney, California Chrome stood motionless at the gap, overseeing his domain, before backtracking and then galloping into his work.
The drill was his professional norm, a carbon copy of his morning workouts in recent years—pulling on Gladney early with an eagerness to run and powerfully accelerating in the stretch. The first quarter went in :25 flat, but he quickened to run a half-mile in :48 2/5 and hit the wire in 1:00 1/5 for five furlongs, with a gallop out to six furlongs in 1:13 3/5.
“He looked like he was going so easy,” trainer Art Sherman said.
As the son of Lucky Pulpit made his way back to the barn, however, talk of the work faded quickly and nostalgia reigned. The 79-year-old trainer couldn’t help but ponder California Chrome’s place in the history of the sport.
“What gets me with this horse is he gets stronger as he gets older. It’s kind of spooky,” Sherman said. “I cannot believe his demeanor. Training him, he’s just so much stronger and it’s hard for me to believe. At 6-years-old, could this be his best? I don’t know.
“It’s so hard to go from 2 to 3, 4, 5, and now 6. Even all the great horses, somewhere down the line, they tail off a little bit and have some good days and bad days. This horse has just been unbelievable.
“You’re around a lot of good horses—like Kelso and all of them—that stood up at an older age and you wonder, could he be like that? I think, to me, he’s outstanding, but could he be an all-time great? Like Secretariat, or John Henry—could you put him in the same category?”
The questions hung in the crisp morning air. Comparing the greats is one of the game’s most prevalent pastimes, but a solid answer is never truly clear.
What is clear is the immediate future for California Chrome. He’ll ship to Gulfsteam Park in the early morning hours of Jan. 6 to make the final start of his career in the Jan. 28 Pegasus World Cup (gr. I). Assistant trainer Alan Sherman will head East a day prior and will oversee the chestnut’s final preparations in Florida.
“I’ll get a little teary-eyed when it comes closer to the end,” Alan Sherman said.
Same goes for Sherman assistant and exercise rider Anna Wells.
“It’s sad. I don’t want to see the horse go,” Wells said, after hopping off new stable star Dortmund following a morning gallop. “I’m just glad I get to go to the race. I’ll try to keep the tears back, and all.”
But maybe—just maybe—a blowout win in the Pegasus could convince owners Perry Martin and Taylor Made Farm to keep racing him. With plenty of mares lined up to breed to California Chrome, that hope is all but lost, but the elder Sherman can still hold out hope, even if it’s only half jokingly.
“If he wins this Pegasus race, we might have to think about it,” he said. “Let’s have one more year at it. Just give me one more year.”